My lost chapter

Dear Editor,

It is now almost one year since I submitted to you the chapter that you solicited from me as a contribution to the upcoming volume “Real cool phases of matter”, which is going to be included in the distinguished series “Exciting stuff no one cares about”, inarguably one of the finest publications of Reputable Publishing Company. As you surely remember, I did my best to submit my contribution within your requested time frame. I sought from you a two-month extension over the deadline to which I had initially agreed, for the simple reason that the subject of my chapter (that especially cool phase of matter), is currently under intense investigation, both theoretical and experimental.

Over the past three years, new results have been reported almost quarterly, and agreement is still lacking on the interpretation of some of the phenomenology, witness the controversies and fierce debates in the scientific literature, as well as at recent symposia held in Europe and North America. Furthermore, very recent theoretical predictions point to the exciting possibility of observing that yet elusive phase in a completely different physical setting from that envisioned until now. I felt that it was necessary to have a first-hand, direct, up-to-date assessment of the current state of knowledge from the main authors themselves, before even embarking on the task of writing a chapter. It would be a shame if a manuscript to be included in a book presumably aiming at being a general reference for years to come, were rendered obsolete by progress made shortly after its appearance.

Naturally, one cannot delay publication indefinitely, based on that argument. Your need of Editor to have a firm submission date is fully understood, as the Publisher is obviously intent on having the book in print “as soon as possible”, while the subject is still “hot”. And even from my personal standpoint, there is unquestionably an issue of timeliness, as my chapter incorporates unpublished results, obtained by myself and my collaborators, whose relevance and interest to the community are probably at their peak now. So, I too wish to see my chapter in print as soon as possible. And that is precisely the purpose of my letter to you today.

In our recent e-mail exchange, you responded to my inquiry over the status of this operation by first thanking me for my cooperation (and reasonably timely submission); then, you went on to lamenting the lack of such cooperation on the part of some of the other contributors, who have not yet sent you their chapters. These individuals are de facto stalling publication of the volume. When I asked you if, given the unexpected, significant delay accumulated thus far, you would consider moving forward with its publication without the missing contributions, you stated that some of the “offenders” are “internationally known, highly accomplished scientists”, whose manuscripts “will unquestionably enhance the prestige and authoritativeness of the volume”, in turn greatly increasing the visibility of chapters written by “less prominent authors” (thank you for the compliment, by the way).

Please don’t get me wrong, I can certainly see your point but you see, there are two problems with your approach:
0) unless you are going to tell me that my “prominence does not warrant it” (which may well be what you think, and you may well be right — but you will probably not be that blunt), I do not see why I ought not request of you that I be given extra time and allowed to make further changes to my own paper, expanding it, including more recent data, references and so on (we all know that, on reading our text after a few months we feel like editing it a bit). After all, you made that offer yourself, as you heard the tone of discontent in my voice after hearing from you that publication is not yet in sight.
But then, all of the other authors who have already submitted their manuscripts may legitimately ask for the same concession, which would lead to further delay, and you can clearly see how all of this may set the whole process on a never ending journey. So, by allowing some to be so egregiously late with respect to the original deadline, you are setting yourself up for a major delay, which may well render the book scarcely timely.
1) the Publisher insists that completed manuscripts not be made available to the general public by uploading them to some free repositories like ArXiv, where they could be read by colleagues and students. That would at least allow authors to receive some credit for their work and establish priority for their yet unpublished results, while awaiting “official” publication. Nobody likes to do an ungodly amount of work, only to let it sit there for months, not being read by anyone, with the significant chance that novel results contained therein, may be obtained and published before by others. This constitutes a powerful incentive for scientists either to decline invites to submit contributions to edited volumes [0] or to include in such contributions only outdated, already published material, at the obvious expense of originality and interest.

Let me share with you my opinion, for whatever you may think it is worth. The thing that you should really try to talk the publisher into letting authors do, if this kind of publication is to have a fair chance at survival in the internet era, is set up a web site where completed manuscripts could be accessed and downloaded online (possibly by charging an access fee, like most journals do), or at least allow authors to make their manuscripts available for consultation at their own web sites, or upload them to ArXiv. Otherwise, I am afraid that you and I may be witnessing the decline of the entire notion of edited book with chapters contributed by many different authors, and that neither you nor I will ever be in this predicament again.




[0] As you know, book chapters are already not generally regarded as particularly worthy accomplishments by university administrators. Please do not tell me up to what you think that administrators have their heads, for I agree with you but that does not really do much for either one of us.

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